Short Commentary – His Birth, Our Cross: The Liturgical Calendar and One Last Belated Word on Christmas

If it is not too late to say one last word involving Christmas (for many of you it probably is), I ask you to please lend an ear one more time to something festive. Even if it is too late, still read on because, hey, we (most of our audience, presumably) are Catholic right? Besides – the Christmas season only really ended with the celebration of Epiphany in the revised post-Vatican II liturgical calendar which wasn’t that long ago. And for those who go to the Traditional Latin Mass, which runs accord to the 1962 Roman Missal, it’s technically still Christmastime till the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus on February 2 (Candlemas). So, with that being said:

Merry Christmas!

“Nice try, but it’s already mid-January,” you say?

To that I say, well, Jesus was only born a couple or so weeks ago, . . . or has He sprouted up fully-grown in your hearts already? In that case, get ready for what’s going to happen at the end of Lent this year. (This will be only a short commentary, I promise.)

Anyway, what I want to touch on is dealing with what happens on the days immediately following December 25 during the Octave of Christmas (December 25-January 1) in the United States’ version of the Church’s liturgical calendar. I have been Catholic for four years now, but I only really took notice this time around of something that I feel the Church’s calendar clues us in on. I altar serve regularly at my parish, so I always try to have an extra eye out on the liturgical calendar so I can be in the know about we are going to be celebrating. What I noticed was this: Christmas, perhaps the most joyful time of the year, sure is followed by a lot of death. Don’t follow me? Just take a look at the feast days that are right after Christmas day.

December 26 – St. Stephen, the first martyr

December 28 – Holy Innocents, martyrs

December 29 – St. Thomas Becket, bishop and martyr (optional memorial)

The liturgical calendar doesn’t play around. As soon as we get through celebrating the birth of the One who gives true life to a world that is dead in sin we are plunged head-long into feast days of blood. On Christmas day, after weeks of Advent’s penitential violets with a dash of rose mixed in, we finally bring out the cheerful liturgical whites and golds only to shutter them all away just as soon as we brought them out. The day after Christmas the whites of rejoicing are replaced with the reds of sacrifice. The life of Christ is shrouded for a short time by the celebration of death with the only reprisal being the feast day of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist on December 27. And the deaths we are celebrating are not ones where someone drifted peacefully off into their eternal reward. These are the ones in which there was a victim and a slaying. St. Stephen (December 26), the first Christian martyr for Our Lord and one of the original seven deacons of the Holy Church, was stoned outside the walls of Jerusalem. The babes of Bethlehem two and under were slaughtered without mercy under the order of Herod, and this is commemorated with December 28’s feast of Holy Innocents. Finally, (even though it is an optional memorial) December 29 is the feast day of St. Thomas Becket who was murdered by the agents of King Henry II in 1170 for defending the rights of the Church in England.

First, for a moment I thought it was a little strange that so soon after Christmas the tone changes so drastically. During Advent I awaited the great event of the birth of Our Lord. There came a time where I even craved the seasonal change of colors that would come signaled in the beauty of the white veil that would be draped in front of my parish’s tabernacle and in the awesome gold and white chasuble that Father would don for the first time in ages. But, shortly after I began to find the liturgical calendar’s juxtaposition between the celebration of the joyful birth of Jesus and the commemorations of martyrs to be very compelling. Then, I thought about how much this “coincidence” points to something crucial about the nature of the Christian life itself. The peculiar placement of martyrs’ feast days right after Christmas triggered a thought on the radical implications that are placed upon those who would dare to bear the name of and live a life for a Man who was born to die. Those implications are summed up in words I penned in another Christmas-related article I wrote for Laudare back in 2016:

The first Christmas sent Jesus on the way to the Cross, and thus the small Christmases that occur during Mass must send us on our way to ours.” [1]

Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; therefore, He lived a life that vividly showcased the Way, the Truth, and the Life for all that would choose to follow Him. Of all the infinite things that could be said about His life, there is one aspect that I want to touch on. He showed by His life that the best way to live the Way, the Truth, and the Life is to die. Jesus had a mission from the very moment of His Incarnation, and that mission was the dreadful destiny of the Cross. By His life, death, and resurrection He redeemed mankind; thus, His birth is inseparably connected to His death. His life is indivisible from His Cross. Our faith teaches us that Jesus was not only truly God but also truly man, and the Bible informs us that He was tempted like we are but never sinned (Hebrew 4:15). Therefore, Jesus faced all the little and great obstacles that the flesh presents to us when trying not only to do God’s will but also truly love our fellow man despite humanity’s flaws and sins. Nevertheless, He died to the lures of a tempted flesh countless times during His whole life leading up to His great death at Calvary always submitting to the Father’s will. Thus, the major implication upon the life of every Christian is to die to self and the world and to live for both the Jesus at the right hand of the Father and the Jesus next to us in our neighbor for the sake of the salvation of all – no matter how hard, no matter what it may cost us. This was all started by the first Christmas and led without deviation to the first Good Friday. And if you had the chance to speak with God before the Incarnation occurred in time and told Him how much you loved the idea of His Son being born on Earth in the arms of a loving Family but disliked the plan of His death at the hands of a hateful mob, you would have never gotten Christmas in the first place. As a Christian, you cannot expect to live the Christian life without all the little deaths that must occur in between the time of your new birth at baptism and the reception of your heavenly reward. During that time you must pick up your cross (Matthew 16:24), persevere (Matthew 24:13), and head to your calvary (small “c” for us). And sometimes that calvary is a martyrdom (be it a white martyrdom through patient longsuffering or a red one hurried by the avarice of man). Just as His birth led Him to His Cross, our new birth through baptism must lead us to ours.

Finally, how all this relates back to the calendar is that when we think of the birth of Christ we must also hold a place in our hearts in which we contemplate where His birth will ultimately lead – the Cross – and the inseparable nature of the two. This is symbolically represented in the placement of martyrs’ commemorations right after Christmas as if God and His Church are reminding us of the reality of the Christian life, a reality of self-denial and death to the flesh and the world. The nod given by the Church through her calendar to let us know it is time to celebrate the Incarnation is soon followed by a subtle point to the sacrificial giving up of self so masterfully shown in the lives of the martyred Saints who emulated their Lord. It is almost as if the Church in her wisdom is exclaiming to us, “Yes! Rejoice! Christ is born! Celebrate it,” but then hints to us that there is a real way to not only celebrate it in the present moment but also to live what the Incarnation means for us in our daily lives. The Church then proceeds to point to the lives of martyrs saying, “This, my children, is the way.”

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[1] Farr, Justin. “The Christmas in You: A Christmastide Reflection.” Laudare.org, 2016.

The Resolution

Happy New Year!

I love new beginnings, fresh starts and resolutions! I think it has to do with the realization that I fall seriously short in many aspects of my life and sometimes all I  want is a “redo”!  I look to the future, to bigger and brighter days, to days full of good habits, good friends and good memories; despite my own shortcomings.  I see this internal battle not only in myself but others as well.

The endless pursuit of diets and exercise routines and the self-help section at the library reveal a natural tendency to let ourselves go!  We struggle to better ourselves and create good habits. The bad patterns we have created for ourselves can lead not only to our own feelings of failure and disappointment but also to our own destruction; physical, mental and spiritual. Our health, families, finances and communities can struggle if we have not ordered our lives to some higher good!

Often we realize we can’t do it on our own! We need help and motivation and a living example to reveal to us the way! We seek out professionals; personal trainers, gurus, dietician or life coaches. We want hope!  It is a cottage industry showing others how to live well and get the most out of their lives. We want to know how others do it and be assured we can accomplish the same. We realize it takes more than positive thinking and good intentions. Within three months of wanting new beginnings, new change and renewed hope I fall back into old routines!  We need a resolution!

St. Paul wrote of this struggle to the Romans in chapter 7, verses 15-25 in the New Testament, “What i want to do, i don’t, and what i don’t, i do! ”  We are a composite being, spirit and body, there already exists a certain tension in us; a certain struggle of tendencies between “spirit” and “flesh”. But in fact this struggle belongs to the heritage of sin. It is a consequence of sin and at the same time a confirmation of it. It is part of the daily experience of the spiritual battle.  The Catholic Church calls this concupiscence!  Concupiscence, is a fancy word defined by the dictionary as meaning a strong desire.  The Catholic Church defines it as our inclination to sin.  We all have concupiscence!  We all have this internal battle to want to do good but many times fail because we are inclined to do the opposite and fall short of pleasing not only ourselves but, God as well.

The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak .  Human nature, created good by God, is now fallen from its original grace.  Our intellect is darkened, our will is weakened and there is disunity between body and spirit.  Deep inside we yearn for this wholeness of body, mind and soul!  We seek enlightenment.  We desire goodness.  We know something feels wrong but we just can’t put our finger on it.  Our subconscious cries out and in the fullness of time God answered.  In the Christian tradition the Catholic Church teaches that God became man, in Jesus the Word made Flesh, to save us and renew us.  Through Jesus, God delivers us from our fallen human nature and restores us to a new life through baptism and the sacraments.

For Christians and all mankind,  Jesus is our hope,  He is our new resolution!  He is the new beginning , the new creation, the new Adam making all things new in himself!  Jesus is our Example, He shows us the way to live and treat others.  He is our Savior by his life, death on the cross and His resurrection from the dead and Ascension into Heaven, he takes away our penalty for sin and reveals to us the only way to God the Father is through him.   It is Christ that turns our struggles, weakness and failures into victory.  When we accept Christ through baptism, because he is God in the flesh,  he forgives us our past sins, makes us a part of his holy family, gives us a home in his Church and lifts us up into his divinity!  We become one with Christ so  that through his death we will also rise to new life.   Accepting Christ and living a life in his Spirit according to his example makes us a new creation and He promises eternal life with him to those that believe!

It is through Christ that we can truly renew ourselves and make a better future for ourselves!  Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” (John14:6)  I want to invite you to a new way of life!  It’s not about “me”!   I want you to know “Truth!”  It will set you “free”.  If you are wanting a new start and fresh beginning then look to Jesus and His One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church and begin a life of renewal, living in the spirit.

We strive to make promises to do better, to get healthier, to read more, to enjoy life and not “stress” ourselves out over every little thing!  Can we not add more time for prayer?  Can we take one hour to go to Mass on Sunday?  Can we offer up our sufferings for others?  Can we forgive more and do with less?  Instead of despairing over some sin committed can I not promptly confess it?  Who can I love more?  What can I do for others?  Who is in need that I can help?  How can I give to God what is pleasing?  By addressing the spiritual and physical needs of others and yourself and offering yourself to God and allowing him to work through you, your life becomes healthier, happier, and holier!

This year why not make a simple resolution.  Turn away from at least one  bad habit that you struggle with and turn toward reconciliation with God through Jesus and His Church.  Offer your sufferings up to him for penance and ask God to amend your life.  Take baby steps if you must.  If you are not Catholic start going to a local Catholic Church.  Talk to a Priest, go to Mass, learn more about the faith by going to RCIA classes.  Maybe even consider baptism if you have not received it and/ or confession if you have not been in a while.   Make a small commitment every week. We all have the choice to renew our lives daily.  Because we are human we have the tendency to fail and that’s ok!  Keep trying!  It is a simple resolution that has an eternal consequence. Next year you will be able to look back and see the great journey you began started with one resolution!  Taking the first step.

There is no better time than the present.

 

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation.  The old has passed away.  Behold, the new has come!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ; not counting men’s  trespasses against them.  And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God was making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

~ 2 Corinthians 5:7-20

 

Yes, the Eucharist is a Prize! Are you perfect?

 

We live in an age of sound bites, and tweets. When they sound convincing, people latch on to them, sharing and repeating them over and over, regardless if they really understand what they are saying. Short phrases and quotes about the Catholic faith are some of the worst going around. You may have heard this: “The Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect!”

I think it is generally quoted to support those who feel that because of the Church’s “judgment” of their sins that they are unwelcome at the Lord’s table. There is some truth to that, but as is the case with most theological truths…there is so much more.

As Catholics, we hold as central to our belief that Jesus is truly present Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Eucharist. This is not some vague notion of God being everywhere. Yes, of course, he sees everything and is everywhere. But not in the same way as He is present in the Eucharist, and we believe this, because He said so. Jesus is very clear, beginning in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, in the Bread of Life Discourse. And when He spoke of it, preparing his people for what was to come, he did not whitewash it, nor explain how he would do it, nor did He call back his disciples who walked away from Him, saying it was too much to take. He didn’t say, “No, come back, I didn’t mean it literally. It is just symbolic.” No, he turned to his apostles, and said “Will you too go away?”

When Jesus became man, suffered and died for our sins, he didn’t just save us and leave. And the Holy Bible, the inspired Word of God, determined by the Catholic Church many years later, wasn’t all He left us with. And the Church He established for our benefit, a source of grace, guidance, and authority, wasn’t all either. Jesus loves us so much that He gave us something even more profound, and more beautiful, an act of love around which our entire Catholic faith revolves. It is the Holy Mass. And on Holy Thursday, at the first mass, Jesus expresses to his apostles what he longed to share with them…. His Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist.

Then he asked his apostles, to “do this in remembrance” of me. Translated it seems to convey a ritual, but why would Jesus “long” to share a ritual? There is a much more profound meaning than that. In these words to the apostles at the Last Supper, Jesus is conveying a personal plea to them and to us. The Lord devised a way, as only He can do, for Him to leave and yet to stay. It is genius. It is an act of pure love. But it is so Jesus, our God, who cannot help Himself, but to love us in this way. And when I ponder this moment with his apostles, I can hear the emotion in His voice, “Remember me. Please do not forget me.” He thought of a way that He could be closer to each of us, than anyone who sat next to Him and heard His words then, and so when you receive the Eucharist, God Himself comes and dwells within you!

I don’t know how anyone who believed in Jesus Christ, and His words, who pondered this thought, letting it sink into their mind, soul and heart, could not be changed forever.

“You want to progress without Holy Communion? But Christian tradition is against you. No longer say the Our Father, since you ask in that prayer for your daily Bread, the Bread you think to do without.” St. Peter Julian Eymard

Catholic or not, are you a Christian who prays the Lord’s prayer? Every time you pray “give us this day our daily bread”, the bread that you are asking for is the Bread of Life that Jesus spoke of. Think on this. Would he just be giving us a prayer to ask for food for our bodies when he told us not to worry about those things? “Do not worry about what you are to eat…” Mt 6:25 

It is the food for our souls that we ask for and need. It is Jesus Himself.

“He that eats this bread shall live forever.” John 6:58

In Holy Communion, Jesus takes possession of us. He literally becomes one with us, and makes us His. This is how we become “perfect”. “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus said. Have you ever wondered “how can I ever be as perfect as God?” It doesn’t seem at all possible does it? Unless, He acts divinely within us. Then we become but a passive instrument moved and guided by Jesus. And the more we die to our own self-love and will, and allow Jesus to act, the more He can live in us! So the words of St. Paul are more easily understood. “It is no longer I, but Christ who lives in me.”

“As the living Father has sent me, and I live by the Father, so also the one who feeds on me shall also have life because of me.”  John 6:57

This is the Life that makes us acceptable to the Father. Then our actions please Him, because He sees His Divine Son acting in us. But it is our disposition, our union with God, which determines how Jesus can work in us, and through us. This is why Jesus repeats “Abide in me, and I in you.”

This union with the Lord, gives me a dignity like no other creature, consecrates me to Him, and makes me holy. So, going back to “the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect”… If you are in mortal (serious) sin, then you have snuffed out the light of grace in your soul that makes you holy….and you may not receive the Eucharist. The Catholic Church (under the authority of Jesus Christ) forbids it, until you have gone to confess and be absolved of your mortal sins. If you receive the Lord in this state, it is a grave sin in itself, compounding your mortal sin. If you do this, you actually cause the Lord a kind of pain that we cannot even begin to understand. Furthermore, you do NOT receive any grace from that Communion, in fact you just deepen your spiritual darkness.

“God does not judge Christians because they have sinned, but because they do not repent.” St. Niphon of Constantia

The Eucharist is not an entitlement. It is a beautiful gift from God. It is God, and He is the Prize. Do we receive Him casually, indifferently, or with total disregard for the state of our soul, profaning the Majesty and Holiness of God? We should never, ever receive the Eucharist with mortal sin on our soul.

Often after we have first consented to mortal sin, the devil makes us blind to it. So, it is very important to pray to the Holy Spirit to enlighten you, really search your heart, find an examination of conscience to review over, and get to the Sacrament of Reconciliation!

The Catholic Magisterium in the Council of Trent declared: “As of all the sacred mysteries….none can compare with the Eucharist, so likewise for no crime is there heavier punishment to be feared from God than for the unholy or irreligious use by the faithful of that which contains the very Author and Source of holiness…”

Receiving the Holy Eucharist is serious, never something to be taken lightly. To have a “holy fear of God” means to respect the Holiness of God. It is why Moses removed the sandals from his feet when in the presence of the Lord.

So, we must do all we can to make ourselves worthy to receive the Lord, by the means He has given us, but then bow down in humble submission knowing that only He can make us worthy. Then we can open our mouth and heart to receive Him, thank Him, praise Him, and most importantly love Him.

At this time, ask Our Lord to live in you, and let you live in Him. It is in this moment, that Jesus becomes one with you, and through Him you can be made perfect.